“You find me wicked, don’t you?” Ava jutted her fingers outright, exhibiting her newly acquired diamond. Her ring finger buckled slightly under the bulbous rock’s weight—the thing must have weighed nine pounds.
“Cider?” I asked, looking away, then grasped the Styrofoam cup before me.
“A diversion!” She laughed, flashing those florescent teeth, her grin matching the cheer of her family’s Christmas party. “ Logan , why can’t you seem to care?”
Because you’re supposed to marry me?
But I laughed, indifferent. “It’s better than the cocoa.” And then I squeezed the thermos button, steaming liquid engulfing the flimsy cup.
“We haven’t chosen a date yet,” she took the cup from my hands, brought the warm liquid to her lips. They parted. Just a slit. The precise crack I needed to tell her how I felt.
“Told your parents?” The careless words fell from my lips. I must tell her. But to remove the façade…
“Richie’s speaking with Daddy right now.”
I traced her nose, the smoothness of her cheeks. The scar peeking under her left eyebrow—evidence of her love for that brutal game, hockey. Three years ago. Her choker had unclasped, whiplashed into her face. She had meant to buy another.
And so I had.
The most intimate Christmas gift I had ever purchased.
“Well, aren’t you going to go on about how I only love him for his money?”
I considered it. But I couldn’t toss the ring from my mind. Such a comparison—my necklace, resting patiently in my shirt pocket: fragile, cheap. Absurdly pubescent.
Enormous, impenetrable. Timeless. Horrific.
“Logan! Talk to me! Rave about ‘no-neck!’”
Her reference forced me to smile. He was rich, and built like the hulk. I had once spray-painted my entire body green, stalked into her dorm room, pretended to clean out my ears with five dollar bills. But I maximized his one flaw as often as I could—his chiseled form lacked the completion of a neck. I’d dropped my chin to my chest, mimicking his look. She’d cried, laughing. Laughing so hard.
But she was asking me to tease her? Something wasn’t quite right.
Arms folded, the enormous gem protruded behind her elbow. She twisted it around, agitated, the workings of a nervous thumb.
“Ava, what’s wrong?” I couldn’t tease when she was like this. Maybe she knew how I felt. Understood the wrong of her recent engagement.
Her eyes darted around, seeming to plead for the guests to leave.
Franz and Lola, quasi-friends of Ava’s, appeared to know nothing of our exchange. Lola was inching backward toward the mistle toe. Franz was as eager as she.
Ava’s Aunt Tory was completing her latest cross-word puzzle. Only the pen she tapped against her face in contemplation was leaking, a splotch of ink messing her cheek.
The other guests were in the front of the home, by the piano, singing carols.
No one knew our conversation. It was safe to begin.
“Ava, there’s something I need to–”
“I’m pregnant,” she cut in, her softened voice most pronounced.
A conduit from the ceiling had opened. Vinegar poured inside my lungs. I tried to smell it, make sense of it, but the fluid was drowning me inside.
Taking a deep breath, I forced the fluid out. “Your dad… Richie’s telling him now?” I hated him. He touched her? I hated him. She’d wanted to wait.
“I love him, Logan,” she whispered softly. “I love him and Daddy’s going to kill him. I love him. And Daddy will always hate him.”
The both of us, I tightened my fist. But calm was my practiced skill. “Your dad will get past that,” I offered, but then realized her fear. Confused, I added, “He, of all people, will be willing to forgive.”
“You’re wrong,” I could barely hear her words, had to read her perfect lips. “He doesn’t forgive. That’s why you don’t see Paul.”
Her brother. The one who left her faith.
To abandon his own son?
“So you’re only marrying him because—” Perhaps I still stood a chance.
She shook her head miserably. “No, I couldn’t love him more, Logan . He’s everything to me. But Daddy—he’ll cut us off.”
My gift, that abject token, slithered into a sharpened blade. The snakelike necklace writhed in my pocket, lacerating my useless, wretched hope.
“Ah,” I frowned, successfully minimizing the pain.
That fear she felt. I had seen reason for it only once. I’d golfed with her father—volunteered to be his caddy. Only, when we were late and her mother complained, her father punished the complaint, verbally attacked Ava’s poor mother. I’d wished I hadn’t been present.
But that authoritative man suddenly strode into the room. Blackened eyes purposeful, he pulled Richie forward.
“Let us see this magnificent rock!”
I’d forgotten her father was a jeweler.
“I’ve seen it, to be sure,” he winked at me, “but to see it on Ava’s hand is quite another matter!”
Ava’s arms were still folded, but quickly melted to meet her father’s advance. Her hand shook, it trembled. I’d never seen her so scared.
“Flawless,” her father beamed, lifting her gem-clad hand into the light. “And nearly one point five carrots,” he whistled. “It’s nice to know my daughter will be taken care of.” He laughed, jubilant, then noticed his daughter’s silence.
“Ava?” he asked, then saw her face.
“You…” her lip trembled, “You didn’t tell him?” Her eyes pled with her fiance’s.
He apologized with a smirk.
“Tell me what, darling?” Her father’s hand clutched hers, his eyes searched her desperate face. “It’s quite all right that you want to marry so soon.”
“But he didn’t tell you why!” she cried. She pulled her hand away. Determined to face this alone.
But I couldn’t allow it; and she had made her choice. She would truly marry the louse. I now had but one purpose.
Smiling broadly, I grasped Richie’s shoulder. “Thanks for savin’ my bacon, pal!” I squeezed it three times. “Ava knows I had no intention of marrying. Give the little tike my name! I pray he doesn’t get my nose.”
I faced Ava’s Richie, only to watch her father’s reaction. He stiffened, clenched his fist. This would hurt.
“What did you do to my daughter?” He snatched my shoulder, pulled it toward him, pummeled his knuckles into my jaw.
I sailed to the floor. Face down. It burned.
“Merry Christmas, Ava,” I was going to say while handing her the necklace, exposing my regard. “Only don’t be a fool and wear it on the ice. I simply won’t stand here and watch you get hurt.”